New president's challenge

Nov. 13, 2000
Now he must govern.

Now he must govern.

Last week's presidential dead heat in the US revealed a nation gone from diverse to divided. The victor must address that dilemma. If he doesn't, he won't be able to govern.

Voters had a clear choice on Nov. 7. Differences between Texas Gov. George Bush and Vice-Pres. Al Gore over issues and ideology were clear. And the result came down to a recount in a single state, where the first tally of 5.96 million votes gave Bush a lead of only 1,784. Florida law required the recount. At this writing, the outcome was unknown.

No mandate

Whoever it is, the winner enjoys no mandate. In his first 2 years in office, he has two primary tasks. He has to build a political base in Congress, which Republicans still barely control, and treat the 2002 congressional election as a chance to ratify his own thin victory.

The new president also must restore some sense within the electorate that Republicans and Democrats breathe the same air, want similar things for themselves and their families, and care about mostly the same national and world problems, even as they disagree about solutions. He must, in other words, unify the nation he has been elected to lead.

Total unification is an unachievable ideal, of course. But the US must make progress toward it. With the country now heading in the opposite direction, there is much room for improvement.

Division should trouble the US oil and gas industry. It breeds frustration, which becomes desperation, which feeds on contrived demons. For oil and gas companies, the role is familiar.

So it went in the campaign just ended. And Gore deserves the blame.

Gore followed a brilliant but revolting strategy of division in which he shook his fist at sundry menaces-health maintenance organizations, pharmaceutical companies, "Big Oil"-and pledged manfully to voters, "I'll fight for you."

To succeed, populism like that needs crowds of people willing to see themselves as hopeless victims of forces beyond their control. Yet in a peacetime economy long on growth and short on unemployment the balance of forces on people is benevolent. So Gore cooked up demons.

It worked-or almost. Nearly half of the voters in last week's election-and 275,000 more than voted for Bush-were willing to turn their fights over to Gore. They see demons out there, among which lurks something Gore disparaged as Big Oil.

Gore's strong showing thus represents a triumph of orchestrated antagonism. And it extends to oil and gas companies of all size. To a riled public, all oil is "Big Oil."

So 48.7 million voters either agree with Gore's demonization of the oil and gas business or at least consider it acceptable for a politician to smear whole categories of people and whole sectors of economic activity for his political benefit. And those Americans participate in and benefit from an economy that requires steadily growing amounts of energy-65% of which comes from fluid hydrocarbons. Apparently, they also share Gore's fantasy that the mere exertion of political will can reformulate energy economics at acceptable cost.

They're in for a shock. The US faces immediate problems where supply of energy is concerned. And oil and gas companies, popular or not, represent two thirds of the solution. Or would a Pres. Gore curtail their work with his prefabricated fight? In an electorate set on edge against the oil and gas industry, would a Pres. Bush be able to propose anything constructive on energy without being trashed for his past association with the business?

Deliberate alienation

Polarization extends beyond energy, of course. Gore mustered squadrons of demons for his campaign. Many of them, like oil and gas companies, perform vital functions in the economy. And 48.7 million Americans saw merit in his politics of deliberate alienation.

The country can't work that way. It's a fractious climate for a new president, whoever it is. In order to govern he will have to lead. He will have to seek a popularly acceptable position above the intramural hostilities stirred up by the campaign. The earlier he starts repairing the damage, the better. The US faces real problems. Demons are not among them.